Why money will not be enough to address Japan’s baby crisis

Japanese women are having children later in life worried that motherhood will end their careers.

Young Japanese women celebrate 'Coming of Age Day'. They are wearing kimonos and laughing.
Today's Japanese women have more opportunities for education and career advancement then generations before them [File: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo]

Tokyo, Japan – Chika Hashimoto, a 23-year-old who recently graduated from Tokyo’s Temple University, is not averse to having a family in the future, but nor is she jumping at the opportunity.

“It is definitely not my first choice,” she told Al Jazeera. “Fulfilling my career and enjoying my freedom is far more important than getting married and having children.”

Hashimoto cites economic concerns as the primary reason why she, and many other young Japanese women, are reevaluating a future centred around family life. “Raising a child really costs a lot of money,” she said. “It’s not easy for Japanese women to balance having a career and raising a family because we will have to choose between them.”

Japan is facing one of the world’s major demographic crises, with the number of annual births dipping below 800,000 for the first time in 2022.

The current birth rate of 1.34 is well below the 2.07 necessary to keep the population stable, meaning Japan’s population could drop from 125 million to 88 million by 2065.

Japan’s declining birth rate came into focus when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used uncharacteristically stern language in a recent address to parliament. “Japan is on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” he said in the 45-minute speech, adding that it was a “now or never moment” for addressing the nation’s population decline.

Japan is the third most expensive country to raise a child, behind only China and South Korea, despite infamously stagnant wages. The average annual salary, which has barely increased since the late 1990s, is about $39,000, compared with an OECD average of almost $50,000.

Furthermore, Japanese women earned 21.1 percent less than their male counterparts in 2021, nearly double the average wage gap in developed economies.

A woman cycles past a billboard in Tokyo. She has a baby on the front.
Japanese women are getting married and having children later in life, and that means smaller families [File: Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo]

Kishida’s two-pronged solution to Japan’s tumbling birth rate is to actively encourage couples to start families while incentivising them with policies that will facilitate a “child-first social economy”. Among Kishida’s plans, which will be outlined in more detail in the next few months, he has pledged to double childhood spending through increased childcare allowances and after-school care initiatives.

‘Led by old men’

Maki Kitahara, 37, tried having kids with her now ex-husband several years ago.

“But to be honest, I feared that I would lose my career,” she told Al Jazeera. “I often heard male managers speaking about marriage and pregnancy of women ruining the HR plan, which included skill development, job rotation and promotion. This is where my fear came from.”

Driven by career ambition and a desire to explore the world, Kitahara never really aligned with society’s view of the traditional Japanese wife and mother. This led, in part, to her divorce and a permanent move to Dubai, where she remotely runs a leadership training course for Japanese women through her Fukuoka-based company, Global Synergy Education Consulting Group.

Kitahara believes how society is structured and the expected division of labour in a Japanese household — man as breadwinner, woman as housewife — do not support working women of child-bearing age.

“I think it is odd that the current Japanese political strategy to raise birth rates was led by old men who delegated taking care of kids to their wives,” she said. “We need more women in politics and business to have a seat at that table so we can sit together to speak about and plan our future.”

The correlation between marriage and child-bearing rates is particularly pronounced in Japan, where the percentage of children born outside marriage is only 2 percent annually, compared with an average of about 40 percent elsewhere in the developed world.

“When a single woman in Japan becomes pregnant, it seems she only has two choices: having an abortion or entering [unwillingly] into a marriage,” wrote the academic Kozue Kojima in 2013. “Choosing to have an illegitimate child is rarely seen as an option.”

In tandem with growing education opportunities and career ambitions — and in an echo of the situation in other advanced economies — Japanese women who are getting married and having children are doing so later in life, which typically means they are unlikely to be able to have larger families.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the average age of mothers giving birth to their first child rose to 30.9 in 2021, the highest since records began in 1950.

Yuko Kawanishi, a sociology professor at Tokyo’s Lakeland University, believes the employment system — broadly defined by seiki (full-time workers) and hiseiki (contract workers) — is a key contributor to Japan’s demographic decline. The number of mothers with children in the workforce is rising, hitting 76 percent in 2021, 20 percentage points higher than in 2004. Yet, only 30 percent of all mothers are permanently employed.

“This is a very serious macroeconomic issue because many young women are worried about falling into [non-permanent employment],” she told Al Jazeera. “There is a serious disparity in this country, between seiki and hiseiki work, in terms of stability and benefits and salary … there is real uncertainty about the future.”

While Kawanishi is sympathetic to concerns over Japan’s demographic future, she also believes more robust plans are needed to alleviate the issue.

“Population size is so fundamental when talking about any of society’s issues,” she said. “There are things we can do, but we have yet to find any effective ways. I don’t think the policy Japan has been advocating for the past few weeks is drastic enough to make an impact.”

Hashimoto agrees that the government’s solution — primarily financial — is ill-conceived.

“[It] might fix the problem,” she said, “but there still needs to be a deeper structural system to help improve the childcare allowance.”

Source: Al Jazeera